Through the first six games of the 2013 season, Pitt's success followed a rather well-worn formula, albeit one that hasn't always come easy to the Panthers historically:
They won the games they were supposed to win.
Pitt wasn't able to get over against Florida State, who looks like a national title contender, or Virginia Tech, who was ranked and hosting the Panthers in hostile Lane Stadium. But Paul Chryst's team won the winnable games. Pitt beat New Mexico and Duke, Virginia and Old Dominion.
And if the Panthers had followed that pattern for the second half of the season - even with a 50% success rate in toss-up games like Georgia Tech and North Carolina - then the team would most likely find itself with seven regular-season wins for the first time in three years, a win total that would objectively reflect improvement.
Instead, the formula came undone Saturday in Annapolis, as Pitt lost to Navy 24-21 on a last-second field goal in front of one of the biggest crowds in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"They beat us," redshirt senior receiver Devin Street said after the game. "They flat-out just beat us."
If nothing else, Navy outlasted Pitt on Saturday afternoon. The Panthers held a field goal-supported 13-7 lead at halftime as the team's offense sputtered but the defense played the Midshipmen's triple-option rushing attack very well. Navy had just 73 rushing yards at halftime - well below the team's season average - and 135 yards of total offense, 59 of which came on a fluky deflected-pass touchdown play in the second quarter.
But the tide turned in the second half. Navy's offense found some success against Pitt's defense, and the Panthers' offense managed just eight points on four possessions despite several drives that started with favorable field position.
The result is that Pitt now sits at 4-3 on the season with five games remaining and the benchmark of seven wins looks like a more distant goal. Navy was a winnable game; Pitt held a lead - albeit a slim one - with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, and all the Panthers needed to do was put together a drive on offense or make a stop on defense.
"It's very disappointing," redshirt junior defensive end Bryan Murphy said. "Every time you lose a game, it's disappointing, especially this one where we had it. We just did too many things wrong."
Now Pitt will need to do something that it hasn't done very well or very often in recent years:
The Panthers will have to claim victory in a game they aren't supposed to win. And following Saturday's loss, the remainder of Pitt's schedule looks like it might fit into that category.
This week's opponent, Georgia Tech, runs the same triple-option offense that eventually beat Pitt in Annapolis, and the Yellow Jackets ostensibly have better athletes than Navy. Notre Dame has seemed to have just enough of an edge over Pitt to escape with close victories the last three years. North Carolina is 2-5 but loaded with dangerous athletes, the likes of which could very well give Pitt trouble. And Miami, who will come to Heinz Field for the regular-season finale on Black Friday, is 7-0 after pulling out a close win over Wake Forest Saturday.
Syracuse, with its 3-4 record, looks like it could be a winnable game for Pitt. But the Orange beat the Panthers 14-13 last year in the Carrier Dome, so even that trip is a dangerous one.
The upside for Pitt is that the distinction of "winnable games" or "games Pitt is supposed to win" is not one the coaches or players are beholden to, nor is it one they should even consider.
"We're fine" redshirt junior linebacker Todd Thomas said after Saturday's game. "We just have to find a way to win next time. We'll be good next week. We'll come out ready for practice, practice hard, everybody locked in.
"We worked hard. They just ended up with more points than us, so we'll come back next week and we'll be ready."
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